Following his defeat by French forces in 1898, the revolutionary West African leader Samory Touré, was stripped of his possessions and marched to the heart of the French empire. Touré, his retainers, family members, and material wealth were paraded through villages across Guinea and Senegal—their defeat made public through this violent act of captive display. In the metropole thousands of kilometers away, the French press declared that West Africa had been pacified. Touré's empire, the Samorian State, was the final West African-ruled entity to fall to French colonial forces.1 Touré, the “despot,” was ousted after years of hard fighting (Rouil 1897). The new empire was officially safe from recalcitrant African rulers.2
After Touré's defeat, the Samorian State's cultural system was largely destroyed and can only be recreated by piecing together documents, material objects, and oral histories. In this article, I reconstruct this system of regalia and show that the Samorian State invented a unique, syncretic cultural system that visually reasserted the State's control of trade networks. This system consisted of physical objects—such as clothing, headgear, flywhisks, and axes—as well as more intangible experiences in the form of public ceremonies or political negotiations. At its peak, the Samorian State controlled lands in present-day Guinea, southern Mali, western Côte d'Ivoire, and parts of Liberia (Fig. 1) (Gaboriaud 1900). During his rule, Touré's economic and political ambitions were a constant roadblock to French colonial aspirations in Western Africa.
Existing scholarship focuses on the Samorian State's complex political and military maneuverings, which has overshadowed other avenues of inquiry. Contemporary scholarship has failed to consider its sophisticated system of regalia that was dependent on complex trade networks along the Niger River. Samorian regalia have not yet been the subject of independent, scholarly analysis, and many of the objects discussed here have not been published in decades. By better understanding the intricacies of Samorian material culture, we can begin to think about West African systems of regalia as extensions of exchange and trade, not just of power and prestige.
As many scholars have recently argued, nineteenth-century West African regalia demonstrates the ways that leaders “learned to manipulate [colonial] systems” to gain symbolic markers of “prestige and power” (Robinson 2000: 4–5). These symbolic gains were then transformed into concrete material advances in the form of economic, social, and political capital (Robinson 2000: 31–40). Scholarship in art history has taken this further by demonstrating the ways that regalia bolstered a ruler's power and could embody a state's aims (Geary 1981; Blier 2012: 6).3 The Samorian State functioned and flourished within this power matrix. Here, I focus on the material demonstration of power and the ways that the Samorian State invented a syncretic visual system inspired by African and European sources. Rather than solely considering the political aspects of Samorian regalia, I am interested primarily in their materiality. Material considerations are a burgeoning avenue for making sense of West African regalia as objects that functioned within diverse trade systems and offer an avenue into understanding this once-powerful state.
The Samorian State itself was a mobile and multiethnic entity that incorporated symbolic and material rhetoric from a variety of African and European sources. This syncretic mode of production, however, was centered on a decidedly Malinké identity, with Touré and his retainers identifying as Muslim Malinké. Prior to Touré's consolidation of power, Malinké leaders living in the Niger Delta did not have a cohesive system of regalia (Wagner 1860). As part of his goals for the State, Touré departed from Malinké norms and developed regalia that visually validated the State's right to rule, negotiate, and trade with foreign powers.4
Contemporary accounts of Touré primarily describe him as a ferocious warrior, yet also a pious ascetic. The few surviving photographs of Touré reinforce this perception by showing him dressed in simple, white robes, akin to the outfits worn by Sufi mystics in Senegal (Fig. 2). These photographs have come to eclipse the vast array of opulent costumes and accessories that Touré and his retainers wore during public events throughout the State's history.5 Although the French described Touré as a bloodthirsty tyrant, he was also a shrewd politician who wanted to pass his lands, wealth, and prestige down to his children. He planned to form a vast “empire,” centered along the Niger River, which would last for generations (LANS 1897: 60–61). Samorian regalia bolstered these ambitions by alluding to this prized and disputed trade network. These visual dynamics can be seen in the only surviving shirt associated with the Samorian State, which is now held by the Musée de l'Armée in Paris (Fig. 3). This shirt is indicative of the type of clothing Touré and his retainers wore during public appearances. Indeed, this shirt was owned by one of Touré's older sons, Sarankegny Mory. French soldiers took the tunic from Touré's personal gourbi (round, thatched sleeping quarters) after the fall of his main camp.
The prestigious Samorian tunic is a shortened version of the boubou (long, loose-fitting tops sometimes paired with airy pants), which have been popular among Malinké men for at least 200 years (Fig. 4). Boubous were often adorned with protective charms or amulets, and men frequently wore pouches that contained similarly defensive, apotropaic materials (Wagner 1860). These amulets were typically made of lower-quality scraps of cotton and twine, like the amulet taken from a Sofas warrior (a soldier in the Samorian State's army) that was seized by French soldiers after a battle (Fig. 5). The amulet taken from the Sofas and the rough-spun boubou reflect the basic sartorial system of the Samorian State's subjects. Elite clothes and regalia were elaborations on this basic template.
The Samorian tunic is made of a rich, indigo-dyed textile decorated with cream-colored, vertical lines of varying widths that move regularly across the fabric (Fig. 3). Attached to the shirt by small loops of leather are close to 100 silver boxes in a variety of shapes. These boxes are ornate, three-dimensional amulets, which were carefully arranged to accentuate the patterning on the fabric as well as the shape of the wearer's body. Amulets have historically been used throughout Muslim West Africa to invoke divine protection. Touré himself was a staunch Muslim who was named, or perhaps named himself, Almamy—a title used by Muslim West African rulers, roughly meaning “ruler of the faithful.”
Amulets were a normal part of many Samorian soldiers' uniforms, so it is not surprising to see ornate amulets used on elite clothing (Fig. 5). The majority of the tunic's amulets are evenly and symmetrically dispersed along the fabric's vertical lines. This regularity is broken up at the neckline, where six triangular amulets form a collar that frames a larger, rectangular amulet set at the center. On the bottom half of the tunic is a third type of amulet that is attached at irregular intervals. These amulets are completely closed and are long, curving, and thin in shape. Although their form is not readily identifiable, they are reminiscent of knife sheaths or powder horns, which gives the shirt a militaristic air. These amulets in particular bolster the shirt's function as a form of spiritual armor that offered the wearer divine defense. When they were new, the tunic's amulets would have glittered in the sunlight—making the wearer appear to shimmer or glow, perhaps visualizing the protective light of God.
The amulets themselves are formally quite similar to tcherot amulets produced by Tuareg artisans from southern Mali, which are now housed in the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris (Figs. 6–7). Typically, Tuareg tcherot amulets contained Qur'anic verses or other protective materials. Red fabric is visible within some of the Samorian amulets; however, they have never been opened to determine whether they contain anything else. Although we cannot say for certain, it is highly likely that the amulets do contain some sort of apotropaic material that activated their protective function. Both the tcherot amulets and the Samorian amulets consist of silver front and back pieces, which are connected by a flat border surrounding the raised main body of the amulet. Tcherot amulets can come in a number of shapes and sizes, quite similar to the diversity in form on the Samorian tunic.
The formal Tuareg style of the tunic's amulets speaks to the State's close relationship with Tuareg leaders in the southern portion of present-day Mali. The Samorian State's strength was heavily dependent on control of key ports along the Niger River. The Tuareg-Samorian alliance gave the Malinké state use of Tuareg-controlled stretches of the river, as well as access to transcontinental trade networks that reached across the Sahara and into Northern Africa (Person 1968). At varying points, Touré and his retainers even disappeared into the seemingly inhospitable Tuareg lands to escape French capture or interference. Tuareg craftsmen have historically worked extensively in silver and were likely involved in the production of silver goods, like the amulets, for the State. Silver amulets were rarely, if ever, seen in Malinké lands, and silver-smithing generally was not widely practiced by Malinké artisans. The use of this elite, markedly foreign craft demonstrates the ways that a single piece of regalia could reflect complex trade routes and economic relationships.
As an armature for the silver amulets, the Samorians used a variety of similarly elite, foreign textiles, which reinforced the tunic's prestige and the wearer's power. Unlike the closed-body Tuareg amulets, the tunic's amulets had latticework fronts that reveal the boxes' interiors (Figs. 3, 6–7).6 As mentioned, within a handful of the tunic's amulets we can still see bits of brilliant red fabric that stand out against the primarily dark blue textile body. Both the red and the blue fabrics are distinctive within the corpus of Malinké cloth from this period. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, synthetic, European-made dyes had yet to become popular in western Africa; fabrics were thus still made using locally sourced, natural pigments (Pemberton 2004: 19–20). Blue colored fabrics found in contemporary Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire are typically associated with indigo dyeing traditions practiced by Fulbe women in the Fouta Djallon or in western Côte d'Ivoire (Aherne 2000).7 Although Fulbe women were not the only craftspeople engaged in indigo dyeing during this period, Malinké oral histories still strongly associate the distinctive coloration of the fabric with the Fulbe.8 Indigo dyeing is a time-consuming, labor-intensive process that requires patience, physical exertion, and a good deal of indigo plant material. The richest, blue-black textiles were expensive luxury products that only the rich could acquire. The Samorian State was both heavily involved in indigo-growing regions and, at varying points, controlled access to these areas. Although the exact origins of the tunic are now unknown, at the time of its production, its blue textile base certainly referred to the State's ties to fertile foreign lands.
The red textile within the amulets was even less common in Samorian territory. I know of no textiles from this region and period that used red in significant quantities. When red was used, it was primarily in small amounts on prestige objects or elite clothing. Since the red was used sparingly, in the most valuable and powerful parts of the tunic—the silver amulets—it is quite likely that the red fabric was also an imported luxury, reserved only for the most prestigious commodities. Although the red textiles' exact origins are now unknown, its importance lies in its rarity and connotations of trade. The Samorian State's control of Niger River ports gave Touré and his retainers access to incalculable material wealth, like silver, indigo, and red fabric. The tunic is indicative of the State's innovative reimagining of non-Malinké aesthetic traditions to create a distinct system of regalia that mirrored the State's control of trade routes.
This project was reinforced by a “war hat” or turban, which was likely paired with the tunic (Fig. 8). Like the tunic, the turban was taken from Touré's chambers at the moment of his defeat and was inspired by Malinké clothing styles. Simplified versions of the hat are seen throughout the colonial archive, including the 1891 portrait of Touré, which shows the ruler in a simplified turban (Fig. 2). The “war hat” consists of three elements: a thick, cloth bottom, an upper section of loose-stacked fabric, and nearly fifty silver amulets. Around twenty of the amulets are positioned vertically and are arranged around the base of the hat, forming a nearly continuous wall of metal. An additional thirty amulets are interspersed across the hat's upper portion and form four spiraling layers of silver. Although these boxes are far less ornate than the ones on the tunic, they are still representative of a high level of silver craftsmanship. For example, on each of the box's outer corners there are delicate metal pegs from which two thin, loose-hanging chains are attached at the diagonal. These small silver chains were an impressive metal-working feat and speak to the craftsmen's abilities. They also added an intriguing auditory component. When the wearer moved, the chains would have swayed, producing a soft tinkling sound.
Brought together, the shimmering, metal-encrusted tunic and turban imbued the wearer with a sublime, protective power. This ornate costume was most likely only worn during public ceremonies and performances that Touré staged for visiting dignitaries. The silver amulets would have captured and dazzled an audience's attention, while the jingling metal chains would have acted as a melodic backdrop to quieter sections of public events (LANS 1886a: 7–9). On display during ceremonies, the incredible amount of silver and indigo in these regalia were powerful reminders that the Samorians could access a plethora of valuable materials. Trade was simultaneously the site of the Samorian State's authority and one of its main sources of external conflict (LANS 1889: 6). The tunic, turban, and other regalia sat at the crux of these political-economic contestations and were meant to visually reinforce the State's control of key trade networks through a syncretic dialogue between diverse materials.
A flywhisk owned by Touré himself, now housed in the Musée de l'Armée, is another example of this distinctive visual system (Fig. 9). Flywhisks have long been important power objects in West Africa that emphasize a ruler's gestures and spoken words (Blier 2012: 6–10). This object, or perhaps a similar flywhisk, was recorded in an 1897 description of Touré's appearance during a public performance that was attended by several French soldiers. The report writes, “[Touré] has an elephant tail mounted in silver” (LANS 1897: 47).9 The body of the Musée de l'Armée flywhisk is made of hammered copper or brass that was plated with silver. The handle is decorated with two horizontal bands of delicate finial work and raised metal lines, which are a subtle display of the metalworker's skill. Attached to the handle is a thin silver chain, which Touré would have wrapped around his wrist or belt. At the opposite end of the handle is a curving silver plate that bound together the hairs in the flywhisk itself. Protruding from these metal joins are two elevated boxes—one on each side—with front panels that are incised to reveal a layer of red fabric. These boxes are almost identical in style to the rectangular amulets seen on the tunic and turban. It is highly likely that these boxes also acted as amulets that endowed the flywhisk's owner with divine protection and may also have been made, or inspired by, Tuareg silverwork. The flywhisk's subtle material and visual references to the garments suggests the articulation of a regalia system that was distinctive to the Samorian State.
As a further indication of the flywhisk's status, the hairs used on the object were taken from an elephant tail. This fact was noted not only in the museum's object description, but also in the 1897 French report. In the same text, the French sources make note of the many material goods put on display by Touré and the State, including carpets, flutes, whips, hats, veils, guns, and lances (LANS 1897: 4748). Many of these objects are described in rich detail. Following the flywhisk description, the author writes, “[Touré] wears a black veil on his head and wears simple white fabrics. His retainers were dressed in velvet” (LANS 1897: 47).10 Similar descriptions exist throughout the written archive and reflect the attention that was paid to the materiality of Samorian regalia. Each object of regalia was loaded with material connotations whose significance was legible to contemporary viewers.
The French observer was careful to note that Touré held an object made of elephant hair, which was significant for a variety of reasons. Elephants were, and still are, important symbols of physical strength, virility, power, and intelligence among the Malinké.11 The hairs would have carried these rich, symbolic connotations to Malinké observers. However, by the late 1890s, elephants were no longer indigenous to eastern Guinea and southern Mali, and only a few elephants still roamed in modern-day Liberia and Côte d'Ivoire (Maclaud 1906). The Samorian State's incursions into Côte d'Ivoire gave the State access to ivory and other elephant products that rivaled that of the French. They had enough control over the trade routes that they were even able to keep an abundance of elephant hair to use in their own regalia, rather than immediately export the products to covetous French traders (LANS 1889: 6). Foreign powers likely viewed the elephant hair as an allusion to the State's central role in the lucrative ivory trade in this period. Combined with the silver, the flywhisk demonstrated the wide reach of Samorian trade networks in the Niger River delta.
Public ceremonies were opportunities for Samorian men to bring out their own power objects, which mirrored Touré's personal objects of command. In one vignette, a commander flanking Touré during a public ceremony held his own flywhisk made from an elephant tail—probably quite similar to the one owned by Touré (Fig. 9) (LANS 1897: 48). As the ceremony progressed and music began, the man jubilantly began waving the flywhisk to the rhythm of the music, much to the amusement of the crowd and the French observers (LANS 1897: 49). On another occasion, one of Touré's most important sons, Karamoko, held two objects of power during a public ceremony, “a baton of command” and “an ax of bright metal” (LANS 1886a: 6).12 The metal ax was most likely quite similar to an ax currently held by the Musée de l'Armée (Fig. 10). The extant “ax of command,” was originally owned by Touré and confiscated during the battle at Tiafesso on September 14, 1898. The surviving ax comprises a long, straight handle with a bulbous protrusion at one end, and a thick metal chain attached to the opposite end. A sharp, pronged blade extends out at a slight angle from the handle. The blade is an unadorned, utilitarian metal—probably iron—which suggests its military past. Although Touré used the ax in battle, the weapon was still finely wrought and was decorated with circles and joints made of silver. Since the average war ax would have been unadorned—like the Samorian machete that was used by a Sofas warrior in Touré's personal guard—the simple, silver decorations on Touré's ax raised the object's status, making it worthy of a ruler (Figs. 10–11).
Karamoko's “ax of bright metal” would have been similar in form to Touré's “ax of command,” but was likely more ornate because it was used in ceremonies. The lost ax and “baton of command” most likely combined the formal properties of the war ax with an aesthetic and material opulence more akin to the flywhisk (Fig. 9). Although the discussion of Karamoko's costuming is vague, the author's repeated use of words like “bright” and “silver” allows us to imagine the use of stunning objects that were meant to dazzle spectators (LANS 1886a). In 1886, when the document describing Karamoko's possessions was written, the young man was highly esteemed and well regarded by his father and by the French (Erbe 1897). Karamoko had recently returned to West Africa after a stay in France, where he had been involved in negotiations with colonial officials on behalf of his father. Contemporary journals published in the metropole described Karamoko in glowing terms, and his soft-spoken demeanor was often contrasted with the presumed aggressiveness of his father (LANS 1886b; Erbe 1897).
From roughly 1886 until his death in the mid-1890s, Karamoko was either always at his father's side or traveling, doing diplomatic work on his father's behalf (LANS 1886b). It was generally assumed that Touré was grooming Karamoko to take over the Samorian State after his death, thereby ensuring that the State would last for generations to come. During this period, Karamoko's clothing and objects of power would have been second only to Touré's in terms of value and importance. Karamoko's regalia not only demonstrated his father's material wealth, but also alluded to a desired future of continued Samorian trade dominance. Axes, batons, and flywhisks are typical symbols of power in kingdoms across western Africa; however, prior to Touré, Malinké leaders had not made extensive use of these objects (Blier 2012). Like the tunic and turban that contained materials and influences from across the region, Samorian power objects showed comparable aesthetic innovations.
As Touré's presumed successor, Karamoko's use of power objects reflects the successful—albeit brief—establishment of a distinctive Samorian system of regalia that was intended to last.
Despite the importance of Karamoko's power objects, displays of material culture were not limited to Touré and his sons. Touré's wives, lower retainers, Sofas warriors, musicians, and griots were all intimately entwined in the syncretic Samorian visual system. Those in Touré's inner circle wore sumptuous “costumes” that reaffirmed the benefits of being connected to Samorian trade routes (LANS 1896: 5).13 A photograph, taken from a larger album of shots of colonial Guinée, gives a sense of the types of finery worn by wealthy families in Malinké lands at the end of the century (Fig. 12) (Maclaud 1898: 6). The album's owner travelled extensively throughout Guinée in the 1890s and often hired Sofas as local guides (LANS 1894: 12). Although it is unclear where in colonial Guinée this photograph was taken, based on the owner's travelogues it is quite possible that the photograph was taken in Samorian lands.14
Here, women and men wear a variety of garments that are both Malinké and European in nature. Many of the women wear wrappers secured in different styles, paired with flowing tops, draped fabrics, ornate jewelry, and carefully tied hair wraps. These women's outfits were beautifully curated displays of high-quality textiles and accessories that demonstrate their wealth and status. During public ceremonies, Touré's wives often stood alongside their husband and sons, close to the central space that Touré himself would occupy. These women are often described in vague and sometimes perfunctory terms in the written archive. This photograph, however, gives us a sense of the types of outfits these elite women might have worn and reinserts women into an archive dominated by stories of men. It also provides a sense of the array of fabrics and styles that served as the backdrop for public ceremonies.
Most often, contemporary oral histories remember the deeds of Touré, his most important sons, and his advisors.15 French envoys often included more detailed descriptions of the outfits and objects associated with these retainers. Touré's sons, for example, were said to only wear garments of “velvet and silk” that were tailored to make sleek boubous (LANS 1897: 7).16 These luxury outfits were paired with myriad headgear, quite similar to the many types of hats worn by men in the 1898 photograph (Fig. 12). Elite Samorian men wore a combination of West African and European styled hats, including “fez,” “indigenous hats,” “felt hats,” “a hat of silver [fabric],” and “helmet [hats] with tiny mirrors” (LANS 1897: 47–50).17 After Karamoko's death, circa 1896, Touré's generals, other sons, and griots gained greater prominence in public ceremonies and became secondary figures of command.18 As such, these men took up more ostentatious forms of regalia that were previously limited to Touré's direct kin.
One of the most resplendent types of objects worn by these retainers were the oddly described “tall miters of panther fur” (LANS 1886a: 5).19 Surprisingly, a hat now held by the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac fits this description and is likely an example of one of these “miters” (Fig. 13). The surviving headgear was composed of a variety of sumptuous materials that emphasized the wearer's status. The body of the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac hat is made from light brown leather that forms a triangular upper section seated atop a cylindrical base—reminiscent of European miters. This gives the hat a dramatic silhouette that is accentuated by the addition of valuable decorative elements. The surface decorations give the hat depth and a variety of textures. Rectangular strips of dark blue or black cloth are evenly spaced around the hat's circumference. Attached to alternating bands are columns of bright cowrie shells that almost seem to float on the surface of the hat. These solid, immobile strips and the hard cowrie shells highlight the soft, supple qualities of the hat's light leather body, which draws viewers' attention to the hat's materiality.
Rising out of the vertical bands and covering nearly half of the hat's body are tufts of animal fur that are reminiscent of the 1886 description, “tall miters of panther fur” (LANS 1886a: 5). The fur on the extant hat is a mixture of blonde and brunette animal hair, similar in hue to the leather of the upper piece. The 1886 document explicitly uses the word “panther” to describe the hats' components; however, this was a French term that was used to describe any number of wild cats in West Africa (Maclaud 1906). The fur on the existing hat probably came from one of the smaller cats with light coloration that are native to the region, such as the caracal or serval. The French document suggests that the materials used on these miter-like hats were perceived as highly valuable; large cats were difficult and dangerous animals to hunt and would have required a great deal of skill and effort to take down.
Like the elephant tails used in the Samorian flywhisks, feline fur was a valuable commodity that was only accessible to the most wealthy and powerful. The abundance of fur on the miter, combined with the rich leather and numerous cowry shells, formed a lavish display of goods that were acquired from across West Africa. Cowry shells came from the coast, cat fur from the forested interior, and leather from livestock that lived in open plains—these hats demonstrated the State's access to all of these distinct regions. The miters further reinforced the Samorian State's highly cosmopolitan nature and their radical decision to look outward, beyond traditional Malinké practices and aesthetics.20
Samorian regalia were made possible by a politics of looking at others, refashioning the most desirable aspects, and then putting the new creations on display (Geary 1981). This process was not limited to other African states, but was also used against European forces, most notably against the French. Samorian public ceremonies—an intangible form of regalia—were heavily influenced by French military reviews, to the point that French envoys who witnessed the ceremonies were left heavily distressed by the events' similarities. In 1897, the French Secretary General, Louis Alphonse Bonhoure, described a reception ceremony hosted by Touré for himself and several French treaty negotiators; the ceremony was one of the most extravagant receptions recorded in the colonial archive (LANS 1897: 45–51). The event began with a display of hundreds of Sofas foot soldiers. Bonhoure noted that these men wore, “almost without exception white pants with blue, cut in the indigenous fashion” (LANS 1897: 49).21
In earlier reports, French officials described low-level Sofas' uniforms in a similar manner, which suggests that this was a uniform instituted by Touré and his generals. The “indigenous fashion” most likely refers to a boubou tunic and pant cut (Fig. 4). White textiles accentuated by thin blue stripes were, and still are, incredibly common in eastern Guinea and western Côte d'Ivoire. They are specifically associated with Malinké textile traditions.22 The 1891 portrait of Touré shows the leader wrapped in such a textile (Fig. 2). The Sofas foot soldiers, then, were purposefully dressed in recognizably Malinké styles, which mirrored more decorative, elite fashions (Ngong 2012).23 These foot soldiers fit squarely within the visual system that the Samorians invented. The low-level Sofas wore Malinké fashion—marking the State as a Malinké entity. As one progressed through the class tiers of the Samorian State, clothing became steadily more syncretic and dependent on material goods obtained through trade networks.
As Touré, his retainers, his subjects, and the French looked on, the hundreds of Sofas foot soldiers processed around a vast, open courtyard in complex military formations. After a while, the Sofas marched away, disappearing into the large crowd of Samorian subjects who were watching the day's events (LANS 1897). Immediately following their departure, a group of several hundred elite Sofas entered the courtyard for Touré's “review” or inspection (LANS 1897: 45, 51). Unlike the foot soldiers, these elite warriors wore “recovered Tirailleur [Sénégalais] uniforms” (LANS 1897: 45).24 The Tirailleur Sénégalais was the corps of West African infantrymen in the French colonial army and was heavily involved in battles against the Samorians. Their uniform was exceptionally distinct and would have been legible to anyone in the French colonial administration. At the end of the nineteenth century, the Tirailleur Sénégalais wore dark blue, collared jackets that were belted tightly at their waists (Fig. 14). Their pants were typically white, loose-fitting slacks that were bloused beneath knee-length boots; this was paired with a distinct red fez that came in a variety of styles. These French-designed uniforms were markedly different from the Samorian foot soldier's white boubous, sandals, and conical hats.
Immediately after the elite Sofas entered the courtyard, Bonhoure's report departs from the spectacle in front of him. He records a conversation that he had with a man named Ali, a Malinké translator provided to the French by the Samorians, which I paraphrase here (LANS 1897: 51–53). Ali gave Bonhoure a moment to take in the display of Sofas dressed as Tirailleur Sénégalais. The translator then turned to Bonhoure and asked whether the sight of the reused uniforms angered him and the other Frenchmen. Bonhoure curtly responded that it did displease him and his fellow soldiers, leaving the conversation there. Ali, however, was not content to leave the Frenchman alone, and glibly told Bonhoure that he would let Touré know of their displeasure (LANS 1897: 51–53).
The performance, of course, did not stop simply because of Bonhoure and his countrymen's growing sense of discomfort and distaste, but continued for several more hours. The elite Sofas, dressed as Tirailleur Sénégalais, performed complicated maneuvers in the open courtyard (LANS 1897: 47–51). After several hours of this, the troops departed and were replaced by a new group of soldiers—much to Bonhoure's chagrin. He writes, “two hundred armed Sofas marching in groups of twenty, advanced toward the [courtyard],” who were led by a Samorian military leader on horseback (LANS 1897: 50).25 He continues, “We suddenly heard a truly French-sounding ringing, and we saw advancing, with beautiful speed, lively and regular the special guard of [Touré]” (LANS 1897: 50).26
The special guard was the last rank of soldiers to process through the courtyard for review by Touré and his sumptuously dressed retainers (LANS 1897: 53). Like the other groups of soldiers, they performed a series of advanced marching and military maneuvers. Following the reviews, the ceremony concluded with musical performances, dances, and oral history recitations (LANS 1897: 53). The dynamic nature of this ceremony, however, failed to impress Bonhoure. In his report, the Frenchman dismissed the ceremony as a “ridiculous” display of Africans pretending to be European (LANS 1897).27 Although the conclusion to his report was contemptuous, earlier sections of Bonhoure's text are more apprehensive in tone, specifically regarding the Samorians' knowledge of French military customs. He was especially concerned by the sheer number of Tirailleur Sénégalais uniforms that the Sofas had in their possession (LANS 1897: 1). Bonhoure even noted that some of the uniforms were not, in fact, “recovered” from defeated soldiers, but were rather Samorian-produced replicas (LANS 1897: 47). I have found no records that explicitly discuss the Samorians' production of knock-off Tirailleur Sénégalais uniforms. However, Samorian metalworkers did produce highly accurate copies of European rifles in the 1890s. It is possible that similar workshops existed for manufacturing copies of European uniforms (LANS 1897: 50–57). The Samorians' ability to replicate and reproduce these costumes demonstrated their ability to aabsorb foreign elements and make them their own. Not only did the Samorians know French military culture, they could master it.
By recreating a Samorian ceremony, we get a taste of the multi-sensory nature of the State's performances and French reactions to these occasions. The 1897 ceremony that I have described here is just one of the many lost events discussed in the French colonial archive. Based on surviving descriptions, it is likely that Touré and other Samorian elites held ceremonies of this sort quite frequently. Further, it is safe, I believe, to presume that the French were not the only foreign powers whom the Samorians entertained. Rather, it is likely that such ceremonies were held for other visiting European and West African leaders.28 These ceremonies gave the Samorian State an opportunity to demonstrate its extensive knowledge of foreign powers, aided by its access to trade networks. The appropriated Tirailleur Sénégalais uniforms upended the colonial power matrix by transforming “the observer [into] the observed” (Bhabha 1984: 28). This example demonstrates the political extremes to which the Samorians could push their syncretic, materially focused, and trade-based system of regalia. Although not regalia in the traditional sense of the term, the public performances functioned similarly to physical objects by reaffirming the State's trade networks and access to material goods.
This demonstration was not lost on French officers who were, at the time, quite uncertain as to whether they could defeat the entrenched Samorian forces, especially as public support for the costly conflict dwindled in the metropole. Bonhoure was part of a last-ditch French effort to negotiate a substantive peace treaty with the Samorian State. Despite oral histories' assertions that Touré was willing to fight the French for decades, it seems likely that, by 1897, Touré recognized that continued combat against the French was doomed. By this time, the Samorian State was the last remaining independent power in West Africa—even the mighty Dahomey Kingdom had fallen (Blier 2012: 12). In order to ensure the best possible treaty with the French, Touré had to demonstrate the benefits of maintaining connections with the Samorian State as a trading partner. In many ceremonies during this period, the Samorians often left the question of the State's current enemy open-ended. The Samorians made repeated reference to their British trade partnerships and transregional intelligence networks, which would have been tantalizing, and terrifying, to French forces desperate to know what the British were planning (LANS 1896). By playing the British and French off of each other, Touré sought to maintain the State's power and pass his holdings and system of regalia on to his sons.
In July of 1897, Touré sent a brief letter to the governor of Côte d'Ivoire reaffirming the Samorian's commitment to trade. Writing in the third person he declared, “[Touré] declares that he is ready to receive a visit from a white Frenchman and to establish good commercial relationships between us” (LANS 1897: 2).29 In November of the same year, Captain Paul Braulot, in a report to the secretary general of Côte d'Ivoire, detailed a conversation between himself and a Sofas leader, Mamady, who was intercepted by French soldiers somewhere in central Guinée (LANS 1897: 34–39). During an interrogation, Braulot asked Mamady why the Samorians had not yet agreed to the most recent French treaty and why they had not given up their fight against the French. Mamady taunted Braulot, telling him that French troops would never find Touré, no matter how hard they looked. Braulot snapped and angrily told Mamady that forces would be sent to end Touré quite soon. To this Mamady coldly responded, “It is useless to send your soldiers: you do not want to leave [Africa], I will leave [the French camp] tomorrow and tell [Touré] that you do not want peace” (LANS 1897: 37).30 Mamady was eventually released, his fate now unknown. However, his words had a lasting impact on Braulot, who concluded his report with the statement, “The principle goal of my mission is the immediate pacification of Samory” (LANS 1897: Part II, 5).31
These 1897 letters reflect the rapid deterioration in negotiations between the French and the Samorian State during the final months of its existence. Following Bonhoure's visit to the Samorian capital, all good faith between the two sides dwindled, and the French began a full-scale initiative to oust Touré (Erbe 1897). The French increase in aggression was, in part, due to the Samorian's increased economic and military intrusion into western Côte d'Ivoire. The French feared that the region would fall into complete chaos as the Sofas neared the new capital, Abidjan (LANS 1897: Part II). The governor of Côte d'Ivoire was particularly worried that the Samorians would march alongside British forces in a full-scale military offensive (LANS 1896). The governor believed that this would be the first domino in French West Africa to fall and would lead to a Samorian-British takeover of the region. In order to protect the Empire, Touré had to be stopped (LANS 1897).
Throughout 1898, a massive force of French troops chased Touré and the Sofas across western Africa—sometimes engaging in skirmishes, but more often just tracking the Sofas across difficult, barren terrains (Ministère de la guerre 1931: 134). In early September, the French finally stumbled across a viable tip regarding Touré's exact location. On the morning of September 29, 1898, a band of French troops surrounded and ambushed Touré's main camp. Despite its fantastical retelling in many metropole newspapers, the ambush was largely bloodless. Touré was arrested almost immediately, and the sight of the captured leader led to mass surrender (Le Petit Journal 1898). After over a decade of bloody, costly fighting, the Samorian-French conflict ended in a few hours.
Following his defeat, Touré and 100 of his closest associates were escorted by French troops from Beyla, Guinea, to Saint-Louis, Senegal. The end of this march was captured in a photograph taken in Saint-Louis in 1899 (Fig. 15). Here, Touré, identified by a bright blue X positioned beneath his feet, marches down a pier, escorted by French officials. On the righthand side of the photograph a small group of women follow alongside the captive leader. The women carry bowls, sacks, and bags on their heads and backs. Although these women's exact identities are now lost, they might have been some of Touré's wives who were captured when his camp fell. It is quite possible that the bags and bowls that they carry contain some of the many looted goods of the Samorian State, which were marched out of Beyla alongside the column of human captives (Gaboriaud 1900). When the State fell, French soldiers looted Touré's main camp; those objects deemed most valuable became possessions of the French Empire and were shipped back to the metropole for documentation and public display (Gaboriaud 1900). Much like the regalia of al-Hajj Omar Tall, the Samorian regalia were stripped of their syncretic context and power and were refashioned as demonstrations of French conquest. The tunic and turban, for example, survived due to their ostensible display of material wealth and were repeatedly exhibited in the metropole as symbols of French colonial power.32 The refashioning of these objects as extensions of the colonial apparatus eclipsed the materially rich, innovative nature of Samorian regalia.
After arriving in Saint-Louis, the French colonial government sentenced Touré and his party to lifelong exile. Touré and the captive Samorians were forced onto a ship and sent south to the village of Ndjolé in modern Gabon (Gaboriaud 1900). Touré lived the final years of his life under French surveillance, sequestered on a remote island near Ndjolé. In 1900, metropole newspapers announced that Samory Touré passed away from an unspecified illness while in exile (Gaboriaud 1900). His death marked the end of the Samorian State, the supposed end of the violence and chaos that embroiled Guinée and Côte d'Ivoire, but also the end to a distinct, albeit short-lived, system of object making.
I have brought together these extant objects and descriptions of performances in order to reconstruct the foundation of the Samorian State's system of regalia. Exchange and reinterpretation were vital to the State's regalia, which incorporated visual and material elements taken from a variety of West African and European sources. The State's leaders were shrewd politicians who knew how to manipulate objects and, by extension, people for the State's gain. Regalia in the form of physical objects and ephemeral performances were extensions of their multifaceted political, military, and economic machinations that were not simply anti-French or anticolonial. Endeavoring to bequeath his descendants the Samorian State's rich holdings, Touré worked to shore up his position in the eyes of the French by demonstrating his value as a military and commercial ally. By examining some of the Samorian State's political intentions and their material apparatus, we gain a more nuanced picture of the final years of Samory's influential reign. This material history gives us a sense of the contestations and connections that developed in West Africa at the end of the nineteenth century. Approaching this period from its material culture, as I have done here, concretizes this historical reality. Rather than thinking of regalia as extensions of only power and prestige, a materially focused history allows us to see the relationships, dead ends, and opportunities that existed between competing African and European powers during the fin-de-siècle.
Throughout this article I use the term “Samorian State” to refer to the empire ruled by Touré. The Samorian State is also sometimes known as the State of Samory, the Samorian Empire, the Wassoulou State, and the Wassoulou Empire. In oral histories, my interlocutors most often referred to Touré's empire as the Wassoulou State. Here, I choose to use the nineteenth-century term “Samorian State” to avoid contemporary connotations.
During the summer of 2017 I conducted fieldwork in Conakry, Guinea, and in the summer of 2018 I conducted research in Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire. While in these cities, I recorded a number of oral histories and stories about Samory Touré and his influence in Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire. All of the interviews were conducted in French, with some introductions done in Pulaar Fouta. My interlocutors were primarily men from age 26 to mid-60s; I did conduct interviews with several women, who were primarily in their mid to late 50s. These interviews were supplemented with interviews in Dakar, Senegal, with expatriate Guinean, Mauritanian, and Togolese interlocutors.
Blier (2012) has shown how this was visualized in artworks of the kingdom of Dahomey, most notably under the rule of King Glele. Blier argues that Glele's throne, in part, is a symbolic representation of the expansion and power of Dahomey under his rule.
Although the Samorian State used diverse imagery in its regalia, it was still violent and exclusionary. Today in Côte d'Ivoire, many oral histories remember Touré as a colonizer who enslaved thousands of Ivoirians during his reign (anonymous museum worker, interview with author. Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, 2018). In stark opposition, contemporary Guinea oral histories remember Touré as a hero and the embodiment of positive West African values (Abdoulaye, artist, interview by author. Conakry, Guinea, 2017). Moving forward, we must remember not only the elements that the State brought together, but also those who were excluded and oppressed.
Throughout this article I use the word “retainer” to refer to the myriad of people who were most closely associated with Touré. This includes griots, religious figures, elders, his most important wives, his most important sons, military leaders, translators, and allies.
The amulets' latticework comes in two styles: lines of chevrons and small, punctured holes. The two styles are intermixed throughout the shirt and there is no noticeable system defining their placement. The chevron-patterned amulets are the only ones with red fabric, and they are more infrequent than the punctured-hole style. This further demonstrates the value and rarity of the red textile.
The indigo plant is indigenous to the Fouta Djallon region in central Guinea. The plant is rarely found in eastern Guinea—especially in the region controlled by Touré—due to the harsh, dry climate of this zone.
Abdoulaye, artist, interview by author. Conakry, Guinea, 2017.
Original French, “Il tient une queue d'éléphant monté en argent.”
Original French, “Il porte un voile noir sur la tête et il vêtu avec simplicité de tissus blancs. Ses familiers sont vêtus de velours …”
Abdoulaye, artist, interview by author. Conakry, Guinea, 2017.
Original French, “le baton [sic] de commandement” and “la hache de … métal brillant.”
Original French, describing the clothing of Samorian retainers, “Ils portent les costumes …”
Dr. Charles Maclaud was a naturalist and medical doctor who worked for the French colonial government and travelled extensively through western Africa from the 1890s to 1910s. My own research has shown that Maclaud worked closely with Sofas guides in the 1890s.
Abdoulaye, artist, interview by author. Conakry, Guinea, 2017.
Original French, “Le velours et la soie.”
Original French, “les Fez,” “d'autres de bonnets indigènes, quelqu'une de chapeaux de feutre,” “un casque lamé d'argent,” and “un de petit miroirs [sic].”
Around 1896, Touré executed Karamoko for supposedly betraying the Samorian State to the French. Details of the execution vary greatly depending on the source and there is no agreement on the actual details of his death. Nineteenth-century French publications claim that Touré either beheaded Karamoko himself or bricked Karamoko into a wall and listened to him slowly asphyxiate (Rouil 1897). Guinean sources offer many different possibilities of the execution style, but none quite as gruesome as the French narratives (Abdoulaye, artist, interview by author. Conakry, Guinea, 2017). In general, most sources agree that Karamoko was sentenced to death for his close relationship with the French.
Original French, “Deux hommes à ses côtés coiffés de hautes mitres de peau de panthère …”
Oral histories recorded in Guinea today still claim that Touré was the greatest Malinké ruler in history because he was not limited by insular, ethnocentric politics (Abdoulaye, artist, interview by author. Conakry, Guinea, 2017).
Original French, “sauf quelques exceptions, les pantalons sont blancs on bleus et taillés à la mode indigène.”
Abdoulaye, artist, interview by author. Conakry, Guinea, 2017; anonymous museum worker, interview with author. Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire, 2018.
Other French reports tell us that Sofas warriors also wore sandals, belts, shawls, and conical straw hats.
Original French, “Recouvrent des uniforme de Tirailleurs.”
Original French, “… deux cents Sofas armés … marchant en vingt s'avance vers la hangar.” Here, and elsewhere in his report, Bonhoure uses the word “la hanger” to describe the setting of the performance. I have translated this as “courtyard,” since it is the most logical location for a large-scale performance of this type. I have not found reference to “la hanger” in any other written reports or during fieldwork.
Original French, “Nous entendons tout-à-coup une véritable sonnerie française … et voyons s'avancer de belle allure vive et régulière … le garde particulière de l'Almamy.”
Original French, “Ridicule.”
It is even possible that the mimetic, hybrid nature of the performance changed to match the culture of a visiting dignitary. For example, the Samorians were close allies to the British. During visits from Bristish colonial officials, the Samorians may have used British-sounding music or British-styled troop reviews as a demonstration of good faith to their allies. However, I have not yet found documents written by the British or West African powers that detail Samorian performances.
Original French, “L'Almamy se déclare disposé à recevoir la visite d'un blanc français et à nouer de bonnes relations commerciales avec nous.”
Original French, “C'est inutile d'envoyer ton soldat: tu ne veux pas partir, moi je partirai demain et dirai à l'Almamy que tu n'es pas venu faire la paix …”
Original French, “Le but principal de ma mission … est pacification immédiate à Samory.”